There's never a dull moment with the Ottawa Senators (except maybe for that game in New Jersey, yeeeesh), this week's big news being the release of Curtis Lazar to play for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships. I'll get to that below but first a Public Service Announcement: I wanted to highlight that a couple of the topics in today's Five Thoughts come as suggestions from our readers, as well as the denizens of the Twitterverse. I'm thinking of making this a regular feature when it's my turn to write up Five Thoughts for Friday, so if you have something you want to see me dig into, let's hear about it in the comments.
Alright, PSA done. Let's get to it!
What do you need to see out of Curtis Lazar at the World Junior Championships?
In a perfect world, Curtis Lazar would have been able to spend this season in the AHL; a definite step up in calibre of play from junior hockey, but still a developmental league in which he could log big minutes. Player development is part best practices and part voodoo but given the choice between a year in junior and a year playing with the best in the world, it made sense for Lazar to stay with the big club. He hasn't been dominant by any stretch, but he hasn't looked out of place either and that's good enough to justify keeping him around and working with elite coaching. The trade-off between the NHL and the World Junior Championships is less obvious than with junior because of the WJC's comparatively elevated level of play. Lazar would be expected to log heavy minutes compared to the 10-12 a night he's been playing with the Sens, and the level of competition might not be so bad in most games.
So then, the obvious question: what would make Lazar's trip to the World Junior Championships a successful one? Personally, I have no idea if it'll help or hurt his development in the long run but there is one thing I'm hoping he'll work on while he's with Team Canada, and that's entering the zone with control of the puck. Whether it's from coaches telling him to play it safe or a self-preservation tactic, Lazar has a nasty habit of making rushed, unnecessarily cautious plays when he's carrying the puck on the attack. Admittedly, sometimes you just need to chip 'n' chase but Lazar is too skilled to not be forcing the issue a bit more at the opponent's blue line and through the neutral zone in order to create offensive chances. Right now it sounds as if he's slated to play on a line with Connor McDavid, which I can only imagine will result in plenty of offensive play. Lazar's long been lauded by pundits everywhere for his two-way game; I'm hoping when he comes back to the Senators at the beginning of January that we'll see more of the offensive sizzle we've been promised.
Exiting with control
Speaking of puck control, Travis Yost had a great piece up at TSN yesterday that examined multi-shot shifts. I recommend you give the whole thing a read, but his findings pertaining to the Senators were of particular interest to me so I'm going to focus on those here. Yost's research suggests that Ottawa is particularly apt at generating multi-shot shifts and is, somewhat surprisingly, at least passably good at limiting their opponents to "one and dones". So how do you end up being out-shot as badly as the Senators are when you're seemingly better at generating sustained pressure? By having fewer opportunities to do so. Ottawa may be good at making the most out of their zone time, but to reconcile Yost's findings with what we know about the Sens' shot differential we probably have to conclude they don't generate nearly as many entries as their opponents.
What does that look during a game? Well, it could like a lot of things but if I had to guess I'd wager that Ottawa's struggles stem from losing the battle in the neutral zone. Specifically, they're losing the battle in the neutral zone because they're not exiting their own end with control of the puck. This is the most obvious downside of not having any defenseman outside of Erik Karlsson that can reliably move the puck to the forwards -- the Sens control the attack, gain control of the puck but then end up just dumping it out to centre ice where the other team regroups and attacks again. It's death by a thousand cuts. I've pulled a sequence from Wednesday night's game below that illustrates what I'm getting at. Ottawa went nearly 20 (!!!) minutes without a shot in the back half of the first period and the opening ten minutes of the second period in that game. This is how that can happen:
This a defensive zone draw that took place with just 3:22 to play in the first. The puck had just been shot up into the mesh and both teams had executed a change so all the players are fresh. Zibanejad's going to win the puck back cleanly to Cowen as you'll see in the next screen:
Cowen's received the puck cleanly and the Senators players are breaking to their positions. Note that because Cowen is on his forehand here, Ottawa often positions their defense on their off-side for defensive zone draws, his easiest play is to sidestep the first forechecker and go towards the near wall. The harder play would have been to take a sharp turn and go behind the net, but I don't blame Cowen for going the easy route as you can see in the next frame:
Ceci's done a decent job of sealing his man off, but Cowen still doesn't have much by the way of options on the strong side. He goes that route anyways by rimming it hard off the boards and past the first forechecker to centre ice where the admittedly blurry New Jersey defenseman is waiting for it in the next frame:
Even super turbo-charged Mike Hoffman can't get to the puck on time. A battle along the boards ensued that the Senators lost and before you know it. New Jersey was on the attack again. This isn't to cast blame on any particular player, but merely dumping the puck off the glass after a clean face-off win in the defensive end is a disappointing outcome. This type of thing happens to the Senators a lot: they win a face-off, they win a puck battle, or whatever, but then all that happens is that it gets thrown out to the neutral zone for the other team to attack again. Until this gets fixed, the Senators are going to have long stretches of little-to-no time on the attack like they did on Wednesday.
About those shot totals...
A very interesting thing has happened this year compared to last: Ottawa's stopped producing shots at an elite rate. Last year, the Senators no doubt struggled defensively but at the same time were generating shots at a pace that almost made up for the defensive short comings. This year, the team is down to a modest 28.8 shots per game from the 32.8 mark they posted last season. To put into context how big a four shot per game dip truly is, the Senators ranked 4th in the league in 2013-14 and stand 24th this year. The result is a shot differential of -5.5 this year compared to the -1.9 of the year before. It's popular, and probably correct, to point out that Ottawa's lack of depth on defense has been its' Achilles heel but maybe not in the way most would assume. The defensive performance is no worse than last year, in fact it's slightly better, but it's the offensive output that's suffered dramatically.
What's wrong with MacArthur and Turris?
Speaking of offensive woes, two of the players that played big roles in driving the team's high octane offense last year were Clarke MacArthur and Kyle Turris. More than one pundit has remarked on their seemingly lacklustre performance, and it's true that total scoring is down a bit for both compared to last year. Turris is at 0.63 PTS/G versus the 0.70 he posted last year, while MacArthur is sitting at 0.55 PTS/G this year compared to the career-high 0.71 he reached last season. Truth be told, some of it has to do with luck for Turris at least: his 7.7% shooting percentage would be a career low. Still, the malaise can't all be chalked up to bad luck as the one-time possession drivers have been stuck below the break-even line all year. Compare their subpar 48 CF% together this season to the sterling 52.8 CF% mark from last year and you can see there's a larger issue at play than simply bad luck. They're just not driving play in the same way they were.
Further complicating the issue is that it doesn't appear to be a simple deployment issue: the pair are essentially starting in the defensive zone as often as they did last year and while they're undoubtedly facing the other team's top competition, this is no different from last season. I've watched a lot of their play and I have to say I can't put my finger precisely on what the issue is, but there's something there. The only token explanation I can offer for now is their staggering 38.9% Zone-adjusted Corsi share when paired with Chris Phillips. Phillips has had his struggles, but there's no way he's so bad as to single handedly turn the Senators into a team worse than the Buffalo Sabres with Turris and MacArthur on the ice. It's a bad sign, but it's not conclusively by any stretch.
Where will Chris Stewart fit in?
As I mentioned earlier, while I was putting together my ideas for today's piece I put an ask out to the Twitterverse for subjects they'd like to see me write about. Noted Sens stats blogger, and local troll, @MannyElk asked me the following:
@NKB121 Where does Stewart fit in the lineup and do you expect more chemistry with Turris or Zibanejad?— Emmanuel Perry (@MannyElk) December 19, 2014
I know it's a running joke, but it's also a real rumour and with Chris Neil and Zack Smith out indefinitely I could see Bryan Murray making a move to bring in a "big body". In honour of the Simpsons' 25th anniversary on Wednesday, this nicely encapsulated my thoughts if the trade were to take place:
Bonus "Thought" (Alfie! Alfie! Alfie!):
A couple of weeks have passed since Daniel Alfredsson formally retired as a member of the Ottawa Senators, but the afterglow of what truly was a special event hasn't worn off for many of us. To keep the good feelings rolling, the Senators yesterday released some "behind the scenes" footage of Alfie's big day. At close to nine minutes in length it's a long-ish video, but worth every second. If you haven't already, check it out! And don't forget the kleenex.
Thanks for reading!